CHAIN OF COMMAND, my roman à clef, 100%-fiction political thriller, is being serialized here at Rall.com/chain-of-command. New chapters will be posted here weekly, with the most recent installment going up every Thursday or thereabouts.
Please spread the word and thanks for reading! —Ted
OTTMAR MERGENTHALER MIDDLE SCHOOL (DECOMMISSIONED)
THE UPTON SECTION OF BALTIMORE
“What the fuck is that?”
“What the fuck is what,” Denny Romero mumbled as he cut-and-pasted “I love you” from a text to his wife into the thread with his girlfriend. Tony was always bugging out about everything. Which usually turned out to be nothing. When they were kids growing up together in what passed for the bad part of Annapolis the “awesome stash of print porn” Tony unearthed from the basement turned out to be a bundle of their mom’s old Cosmos. As business partners Tony’s blockbuster can of Mercury dimes in the abandoned bungalow morphed in the light of day into a bunch of worthless bottle caps.
“That what the fuck!” Tony shouted as though he were on the opposite side of the site. He slapped at Denny’s phone.
Tony pointed toward one of the mountains of bricks and plaster and pipes and rotten planks that a better city in a better time had arranged into the shape of a school.
In 1924 people did things right.
Despite the shadow cast by the office tower next door and clouds of swirling mystery powder you could tell Mergenthaler Middle School had been a gorgeous building. What a difference a century makes. Now companies like Romero Building Salvage bid for the privilege to breathe through face masks and sift through the rubble of public works to scavenge bits of molding and copper fixtures. Some would be sold on consignment to hipster couples hoping to de-generify their cookie-cutter converted lofts.
Tony and Denny merged the faint beams of their iPhone ARs toward the spot where Tony gestured. Insufficient. The brothers reached in tandem for their Mag lights. Protruding from beneath a hillock of battered bricks and plaster fragments directly beneath a splintered wooden door whose window bore the words “Vice Principal” in frosted drop-shadow lettering was a pair of legs.
In the same way you can tell from her giant hands that the beautiful woman with big eyes and a button nose at the bar was physically born male, there was no mistaking that these body parts belonged to a woman. The skinny probably-dead legs wore knee-high socks with wide black-and-white stripes. Red slippers trimmed with sequins adorned her probably-dead feet.
“We’re not in Kansas any more, Denny!”
Men less experienced than the Romero brothers sometimes mistook corpses for mannequins. But bodies were more common than mannequins. Demolition and salvage workers found them all the time.
Police chased the homeless off the streets. Some walked into banks, announced a robbery and waited to be arrested so they could secure two hots and a cot. Others took shelter in one of the city’s abandoned structures. City building inspectors were assigned to ferret these societal rejects out before the old places came down. But they were workfare recipients who could barely be bothered to show up for work, much less feign dedication to their jobs.
Anyway, vagabonds were expert sneaks. They secreted themselves in nasty asbestos-laden nooks, ignoring amplified warnings to leave due to impending demolition. Explosives were set, connected and detonated. Bye bye bum, hello a downward nudge of the unemployment rate.
Some of them must have gone out that way on purpose. Suicide by gentrification.
“Help me move this shit,” Tony beckoned his brother.
Denny didn’t argue. This was their site. They were salvagers.
“What do you think? Fake or real? A prank?” Denny asked.
“Dig,” Tony ordered.
If it was a dead woman and she was carrying cash or jewelry they had dibs. If they called 911, Baltimore’s Finest would loot their corpse.
“Maybe the munchkins got her,” Denny joked, chucking a cinderblock. “Or the same tornado that took out K.C. got the Wicked Witch of the West!”
Denny stared at the legs. “East.”
“I know, dumbshit,” Tony huffed. “Auntie Em’s house fell on the Wicked Witch of the East. It’s her sister, the Wicked Witch of the West, who runs down Dorothy for corpse-robbing her dead sisters’ shoes.”
They worked fast and gingerly, like emergency workers trying to rescue earthquake victims inside a ruined house minus. Finally the tableau was revealed.
The woman was definitely dead. She was still, dusty, white and in her mid-fifties. Or maybe sixty? Her face wore that perpetually-surprised Botoxed look, her hair frosted like the talking heads on the old Fox News channel. She wore a crushed-velvet purple jacket with broad shoulder pads.
And a tall black witch hat.
Her skin wasn’t discolored. No odor, unless you counted perfume overpowering enough to make itself known above the dust. She couldn’t have been dead long.
She was bound, hands tied firmly behind her back, her legs to its legs, to an wooden school desk scarred with ancient graffiti. There was a hole on the upper right corner for the student’s inkwell.
“Looks like some kinky schoolboy shit,” Tony said as if he were answering a question. “They gagged her with a fucking apple and duct tape.”
“What the fuck is in her nose?” Denny asked. He answered his own question: “Paper.”
Denny tugged on the sheet sticking out a few inches out of the dead woman’s face. He pulled it open and read: “Common Core Mathematics Level 8 Answer Sheet.”
Practiced hands searched pockets, violated lace-covered intimacies. No cash. A choker made of big metal balls. Probably costume but you never knew. Denny yanked, severed and pocketed the jewelry while Tony called 911.
THE WHITE HOUSE
A knock on the Oval Office door and straight inside without waiting for an answer. “Mr. President?” A chief of staff has that privilege.
Arthur Ratzenberger put down his phablet and removed his reading glasses. “What now?” he asked. The bodybuilder-turned-actor-and-then-politician was a craggy hard seventy-five. He had lived in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for decades yet sounded like he’d arrived that day via Austrian Airlines. The jokes were incessant. Yet there was no denying the charisma that had convinced a Congress that couldn’t agree on anything to amend Article II of the Constitution so he could run for president despite having been born abroad.
Once a general, always a general. The chief of staff cut to the chase. “Mr. President,” he began, “the Secretary of Education is dead.”
Wrong If By Sea, Dead If On Land:
Maggie DuBois IDed, Homicide Suspected
by Frank Field
BeltwayBS.com Staff Writer
BALTIMORE — Authorities say the body of controversial Secretary of Education Maggie DuBois, 62, presumed missing in the Atlantic Ocean in Superstorm Daphne two months ago, has been found buried under the remains of a demolished school building in central Baltimore.
DuBois’ death is being investigated as a suspected homicide.
An anonymous FBI source tells BeltwayBS that investigators believe the education chief, a tech entrepreneur tapped by the president despite fierce opposition by educators and parents groups, may have been kidnapped and tortured before she died.
The Coalition for School Privatization called DuBois “a colossus, a moral crusader with a heart of gold who didn’t believe children should be force-fed an education they don’t need. Maggie understood that public education had its place in the 19th century, not today’s knowledge economy.”
DuBois’ $50 million yacht Opportunity Knocks lost contact with NOAA oceanic traffic control as category-7 Superstorm Daphne tore across the mid-Atlantic Coast, Newfoundland and Greenland in June, raising 80-foot waves and capsizing hundreds of vessels. More than 6,000 souls remain unaccounted for and are presumed dead.
At the height of the storm DuBois’ Twitter account posted a picture of the insouciant secretary smiling and drinking champagne on deck as rain swirled about in the background. Her tone was unfazed, even jovial:
“@MaggieDuBoisSecyEduc: Climate change? More like a Perfect Storm. #rockinit #thebiggertheboatthebetter #risingtideallboats”
Now D.C. insiders are wondering whether DuBois ever boarded her ship in the first place. How, people are asking, did this jet-setting billionaire wind up in a predominantly African-American section of one of America’s least appealing urban expanses — buried under the ruins of one of the tens of thousands of neighborhood public schools she ordered closed in preparation for next year’s total transition to for-profit charter and private institutions?
White House officials are bemoaning the fact that DuBois cannot be replaced. Due to the ongoing partisan gridlock in Congress, the Department of Education will be left in the hands of an interim deputy until the next president takes office.
“Why bother to put up a nominee who’ll never get an up-or-down vote? It’s a total waste of time,” a top White House official told this reporter.
The intractable impasse over presidential appointees has its roots in governmental dysfunction that dates back several administrations.
Complaining that he was too conservative, Democrats blocked Ronald Reagan’s choice of Robert Bork to fill a seat in the U.S. Supreme Court. Republicans refused to consider Barack Obama’s court nominee Merrick Garland. Though in the minority Democrats invoked parliamentary procedure to block Donald Trump’s nominees to the court and to fill vacant cabinet posts.
Since neither party appears likely to change course, the new reality — vacant jobs remain unfilled — will be with us for the foreseeable future.
A new president can appoint cabinet members and other top officials on Inauguration Day. However, if an official resigns, dies or is removed for another reason, their former position remains vacant until the next president takes over.
“To outsiders it looks a little crazy. As far as I know, we’re the only country that does it this way,” said Nathan Turnbloom, adjunct professor of political science at John Adams University. “But we still have the strongest military.”
“As we were a month ago, we are saddened by the loss of our good friend and great patriot,” President Ratzenberger said in a statement following the discovery of DuBois’ body. “However, we already buried her empty sarcophagus at Arlington and lowered the flags and so on. So it’s time to do what Americans do best: look forward, move on and kick the past to the curb.”
Some conservatives believe this would be a good time to push for the elimination of the Education Department, a long-standing item on their wish list.
GRAND STAIRCASE-ESCALANTE NATIONAL MONUMENT
Tammy Reynolds liked being sheriff because there wasn’t all that much sheriffing to do.
There was plenty of crime.
Even in Utah most people never heard of Kane County, much less knew where it was, which is hard fast on the Arizona line on the underside of the big long slope they call the Grand Staircase. The fact that Kane Countians murdered and raped and stole at a higher rate than the national average weirded out the few people who thought about it.
Though not if they thought about it much.
Like most places in America, there’s nothing to do in Kane County. No work. No one interesting to talk to. No culture. You pick up a twelve-pack of watery corporate beer at the Samco and binge-watch old TV on a streaming service until you pass out. The more ambitious types score whatever wicked white-trash drug (Oxy, meth) happens to be making the rounds at the time. Some residents get ornery. Some get greedy. Some get both. Thus the raping and the stealing.
So yeah, there was crime a-plenty. The good news for Tammy was, no one gave a shit about the working-class and not-working-at-all-class losers living out here. If she and her deputies could cuff a tweaker for killing his common-law wife in a fit of rage over her imagined philandering or nail some idiot caught fencing his neighbor’s outdoor washing machine, she did her sworn duty as a law enforcement officer and made sure the culprit got locked up. If a case turned out to be tough — if it needed fancy forensics to land a conviction, maybe even a DNA test, if the identity of the perp wasn’t as obvious as the fact that her career would never, ever get any bigger or better than this — she let it go cold.
Whatever the pitfalls of her job, one headache she rarely had to contend with was accountability. Neither a governor nor a senator nor a congressman had never called her. The local newsmedia, such as it was, transcribed her press releases word for word. There was a lot to be said for working a beat without political influence — or pressure. As long as she did the bare minimum, Tammy got paid and life went on.
Tammy hit the top of the pass doing a hundred miles an hour, touched her brake to catch a jig in the road and sped east on Route 89, her stiff dye-blonde dykey hair trying to blow in the breeze of the cruiser’s air vent. She reached for her lukewarm English breakfast tea in a Styrofoam cup.
Kane County’s third female sheriff was actually quite straight. She’d cut it after her mother advised her that a mannish haircut would reduce the amount of crap she’d have to take as an officer of the law with curves but no life partner.
A vehicle a half-mile ahead pulled away, one-twenty at least, flying right into the metropolis of Big Water. She considered hitting her emergency lights and pursuing but the guy — it was always guys driving like assholes like that — might make it to Wahweap before she caught him. She didn’t feel like tangling with the Arizonans.
She had a crime scene to process.
She slowed down to read the mile markers to catch the correct left turn onto a dirt road into the middle of nowhere but there was no need. A row of oil wells was visible from the highway. She turned, flipped on the flashers and approached the pair of panicked derrickmen frantically waving their arms.
If the editorial page of the Southwestern Utah News could have jumped up and down with delight it would have done so after the federal government gave the thumbs-up to oil drilling and mining on federal land, including inside the Grand Staircase. Fuck the environmentalists; they didn’t live out here in the nothing-but-dust. Folks needed jobs. Oil companies paid good money. Drilling would stimulate the economy.
The business boosters were right for once.
Caspian Petroleum, the outfit that snatched up the drilling rights at Big Water West, paid $80,000 a year, plus benefits and a generous vacation policy, to scores of men for manual labor, no college degree needed or wanted. Between the locals who landed the jobs and the outsiders who moved in to sell them stuff, in just a few years there were actual sushi restaurants and a pair of respectable craft-beer breweries. An art gallery was still apparently too much to hope for.
The biggest problem Kanab had post-Caspian was inflation and a housing shortage. $80,000 sounds great until you find out the cheapest place to live is $3,000 a month and you have to share that trailer with three other guys. Going broke despite making bank was enough, not always but sometimes, to turn a grateful yokel into a mean cuss. Was this call prompted by another disappointed nut?
The two derrickmen turned out to be a derrickman and a roustabout. It seemed important to the derrickman, a tall man with surprisingly clean teeth and wavy dirty-blond hair, for her to record the fact that his was the more prestigious position. His portly colleague kept going on about being freaked out and never having seen a body before, blah blah blah.
Tammy followed the thin and fat oilmen to the well furthest away from her car. “Couldn’t have me park closer, guys?”
“You might not want your car too close to this,” the roustabout replied, his accent indistinct but clearly not from anywhere near.
“There,” the roustabout pointed.
Well, Tammy thought, that’s different.
All three held their waists and peered down from the platform.
For some reason she’d now forgotten, Tammy had presumed property damage would be involved. Yet the well appeared intact from the horse head — the big part that looks like the top of a hammer — to the engine crank that powers the drill. Only one thing seemed out of place: the well’s Kelly drive had been disconnected in order to access the drill mechanism. Which now went through the chest of the dead guy. The flies were thrilled.
“We found him just like that,” the thin derrickman offered. “We didn’t try to move him.”
The guy was impaled through the chest by a four-inch drill bit. How the hell could you have moved him?
“That’s great, fellas,” Tammy said. “Best not to touch anything in situations like this.” Idiots. She sensed the chubby one staring at her ass.
“Did you see anyone else? Any cars?”
Fatty piped up. “Didn’t see nothing but him. And that,” he said, pointing to the round spray of blood, thick dark and crusty out to a meter in diameter, then thinner and redder, around the well’s rotary drive.
This being federal land, she’d have to call the FBI. But she’d do a preliminary investigation. She had to. It was her duty. The nearest feds were hundreds of miles away up in Salt Lake City. She was here. Whoever did this could be nearby. Since this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill murder by a pissed-off drug-addled yahoo, catching whoever did this could prevent more carnage.
Tammy clambered down the ladder-like Samson post to the tee where the pipe entered the ground — or was supposed to when it wasn’t first passing through the chest of a 60-ish white business exec type wearing the cheapest grey suit you can credibly claim not to be off-the-rack.
Was this man drilled to death or was he killed first? That was for the medical examiner. Tall, in good shape for an American male…ex-military, perhaps? Buggy blue eyes, neckless, long rectangular face with no exceptional features. The expression on his face said dumb as rocks. Probably always looks like that, she guessed.
She touched the victim’s left hand. Wedding ring. Platinum or silver, nice — the kind she would have picked had she wanted to be married. His skin was a little warm. Roughly halfway between normal and the onsite temperature, which she’d noted as seventy on her car dashboard when she’d arrived, so he’d been dead for at least five hours, maybe longer. This being morning, this man had to have bit it after the well workers had gone home the previous evening and before the two men standing beside her asking stupid questions and pretending not to look at her breasts. Probably closer to this morning than last night. Which meant —
There was a storm last night.
A barrage of summer thunderstorms had swept through southern Utah for hours. Downed power lines. Some tech executive’s fancy house on top of a hill had burned to the ground in St. George. Lots of flooding. The southwest monsoons got bigger and came more frequently every year. They were worse in the desert. People never seemed to understand that they could be standing in a low-lying wash in a bone-dry desert one second and then get swept away and drowned by a wall of water from a storm that dumped six inches of rain thirty miles away. How do you die in the desert? Of thirst — and drowning.
Her heart racing, Tammy paced, scanning the drill site for tire tracks.
There were three.
All three were one-way.
Hers led to her cruiser. If you squinted in a bright glare you could make out the shadows of the LAPD and Phoenix PD logos, both painted over before her sheriff’s office picked it up used.
The oil workers’ went up to their battered Tesla 5. Nice to see them carpooling but one couldn’t help but question the judgment of anyone still willing to use auto-airpilot mode after so many fatalities.
Then the third. Like the others the third set of tire tracks originated on Route 89, albeit a half-mile parallel to hers and the oilmen’s, up another unmarked dirt road. Closer and closer they came, straight toward the well with the impaled man. Then they stopped.
There was no second set marking a departure.
Whatever made those tracks drove up there and disappeared.
STEWART LEE UDALL DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR BUILDING
“Are we still on track?”
“So what’s going on? Does the secretary’s absence today signal a change of policy?”
“Certainly not. This Administration always has been, is and always will be business-friendly. The president believes that energy independence is a vital part of America’s economic future. As I messaged you and told you just now in person, Secretary Pinkle was called away on an urgent matter. Which is why he has asked me to attend in his stead.”
The Deputy Undersecretary for Environmental Energy Policy was delivering a performance worthy of an Oscar. At least a Tony.
Sue Peters’ guests weren’t buying it.
“Do we have a deal or don’t we?” For the scion of an oil family whose fortunes dated back to pre-partition Texas, Jackson Casey IV could be an annoying little nerd. “Where is Secretary Pinkle?”
“Our consortium believes there is considerable offshore-drilling potential along the Southeast Georgia coastline,” said Casey’s sidekick, an oil lawyer. Kelli Regas’ shortness, hideous clothes and Third World hair disguised the 65-year-old oil company attorney’s brilliance, namely her impressive ability to twist case law beyond recognition in service of whatever her employers directed her to secure. “There’s 600 million barrels beneath the submerged former city of Savannah alone — proven. Unproven could be five billion. RusCo, Amalgated and SinoPetro have already signed a partnership agreement. But if Interior drags its feet — well, we’d hate to have to invoke the Energy Freedom Act.”
Sue Peters stifled a scoff.
“We have a deal,” Peters said, pushing back her chair and standing up. “Thank you two for coming. You’ll hear from the secretary.”
“So you say.”
“Perhaps your company should recall who its friends are. As a young congressman from Montana, Secretary Pinkle wrote and sponsored the Energy Freedom Act.” The EFA, called the “Drill Baby Drill” law by both its fans and detractors, dictated that, if an energy company found oil or gas on federal land and extraction was prohibited for environmental reasons, they could demand to be compensated by the taxpayers for their lost profits.
“Actually, I wrote that as a young lobbyist,” interrupted Regas. “Pinkle used my text word for word.” Regas smiled her big sweet fake-and-I-want-you-to-know-it smile.
“Superb text it is, too, Kelli.”
“I’m glad you concur.”
“So,” Peters countered, “you already know that he’s a man you can respect and count upon. We’re all friends here. Secretary Pinkle will be in touch with you and your company, but in the meantime we are putting through a temporary permit so you can begin supplemental drilling posthaste. You have my word. You’re pushing on an open door here.”
“You word. That means everything,” Regas kept smiling, grasping Peters’ hand hard enough to draw a little blood with her nail.
“I’m so glad,” Peters said, almost keeping her poker face.
The young deputy left the room, trotted down a long corridor past innumerable offices marked by plaques indicating their respective bureaucratic responsibilities. Bureau of Native-American Mineral Resources. Interagency Borderland Coordinator. Office of Federal Acknowledgment. Somewhere behind all those linguistically opaque doors, scores of career civil-service personnel were safeguarding and managing and exploiting land that belonged to the United States of America, and dealing with the few Indians we hadn’t shot or driven to drink themselves to death. No one knew how it all worked. No one wanted to.
Peters strode into her office. “Any word from Brian?” she asked her assistant, caught mid-sext.
“You called? Texted? Emailed? Passenger pigeon?”
“Yes yes and yes. Extinct.”
“What do you know?”
“Well, ma’am, yesterday he said he might be going to Utah.”
7560 WESTMORELAND STREET
While the top brass at the Interior Department were slowly being brought into the need-to-know loop to search for their boss, a short but classically handsome man who could easily have passed for fifteen years younger than his sixty-eight years on the planet was bowing out of an obligation to which he had been looking forward.
Rich Ferry pulled himself higher on the pile of pillows pyramided upon his California king bed so his smartphone voice wouldn’t get scrunched up along with his diaphragm. He rubbed his V-neck T-shirt flat (either an unnecessary tic or an affectation since one of his housekeepers was charged with ironing his undergarments) as though he was being seen by anyone other than the NSA. He turned to his side to peer over the outer row of rectangular pillows with soft white pillow cases with rose embroidering on the sides, and then the inner bulwark of scratchy gold-threaded square pillows, then the giant vintage Spanish colonial headboard he’d managed to have exported from Havana despite the trade embargo and out the window to the best view of all: the house across the street.
He could barely see the house. That didn’t matter.
He saw, and loved, the idea of the house.
First there were his windows. Someone who didn’t know better would say: what crappy windows! So blurry! What Rich knew, and what he liked to confide in the young men who sometimes visited his bedroom when his wife was visiting her family back in Texas, was that glass is a liquid that runs and bubbles when it gets old, so it gets thicker on the bottom. Rich loved history. Not reading it. Owning it. It was a prestige thing.
One time a young man — what was his name? Christ, getting old sucks — tried to windowsplain to Rich. Glass, the kid claimed, is made of silicon dioxide. If it changed shape, it would take billions of years. Windows in historical house museums look distorted and are sometimes thicker at the bottom because they were made that way. Modern glass is molded in flat tins. In days of yore (though he was born long after people stopped using them Rich loved expressions like “days of yore”), windows were cut and flattened from blown cylinders. Rich made a droll remark about blown cylinders that marked the end of that conversation as well as the knowledge it had nearly imparted.
Ferry’s windows, emphasis on the word “his,” he liked to tell his guests and even more to think about all by himself, had once belonged to Thomas Jefferson. Ferry had heard that the third president’s residence at Monticello required extensive renovations. He had placed a few discreet inquiries and settled upon a quid pro quo: in exchange for a few relics like his — his! — bedroom windows, the foundation that ran the place would want for nothing for time immemorial. Or at least for the foreseeable future which, this being America and the recipients of the offer being Americans, was not a long time.
But the special blurry windows were nothing next to what Ferry beheld through them: the actual home of the daughter and the son-in-law of the President of the United States.
High-ranking government officials had long been drawn to this tony suburb whose borders were marked by Arlington to the south, the Potomac River to the east and the gay-sounding hamlet of Cabin John to the north. Cabinet heads, even vice presidents had taken homes here. Isabella Ratzenberger and Josh Katzen were bigger than all of them put together. And Rich lived directly across the street from them.
Rich believed that he had lived a full life, making the most of his good luck while avoiding the pitfalls of chance. He had earned $254 million from his father’s trust, a fortune he had grown through careful stewardship and a firm resolve to limit his occasional use of cocaine to weekends and holidays, and marrying his not-unwealthy wife, to $262 million. He had served two terms as governor of Texas, with the distinction of not having to resign amid scandal. He took care of his body even as he aged.
Ferry did regret losing his chance to serve as the people’s master steward. It was natural. The United States deserved the best of the best; it was disgraceful that a man such as himself had been drummed out of presidential primaries for falling prey to a debate moderator’s “gotcha” question. At one time, the TV talking head had reminded him, you favored going to war against three countries. Which countries, and why?
Venezuela…um…Who remembers everything they’ve ever said?
“Oops.” That’s all they remembered. He dropped out of the race, fully prepared for the likelihood that he would spend the rest of his life cooling his heels at a zero-duties consulting job for a foreign-owned energy-related think tank.
Fortunately, there was a God, the same humble deity who had blessed Rich with Monticello windows and a snappy wit. That God had prevailed upon Artie Ratzenberger to call him a few weeks after the election to ask him to lend his leadership skills to the administration of the Department of Energy of the greatest country in the world.
The requirement that he move to Washington was a sorrow. But the Great Provider came through for him there as He had in Austin. House pages were no more but there were so many interns. The bar scene in Dupont Circle was more competitive but also more discreet. All blessings, but what he appreciated more than anything in his well-lived existence was the house in McLean, with its six Doric columns propping up a façade that vaguely evoked a miniature dumbed-down version of the White House so cruelly denied him, its tastefully archival bricks extracted from the remains of a vanished 19th century music hall and its placement directly across a narrow street from the abode of the second-most powerful power couple in the greater District of Columbia.
When he entertained, which was often given that he wasn’t exactly the burn the candle at both ends type, or at either end really, Ferry took pains to try to align his events to the movements of his high-end neighborhood across the way.
Rich’s executive assistant would email her counterparts at the offices of the two Special Advisors to the President. “The Secretary would like to inquire about Isabella and Josh’s schedule this coming weekend?” she would ask. The implication was that a possible meeting was in the offing. As all three women knew, however, meeting — working — was the last thing on Rich’s mind. They replied accordingly.
If the reply came back “They’ll be heading home to New York,” Rich’s fiesta could typically wait. “They’ll be spending a quiet weekend here,” however — bam! Time to put the catering outfit on yellow alert. Whether he pulled out all the stops (live music, a leak to the Washington Post) depended if a reliable answer could be secured to the following query: “Do you have any sense,” Rich’s assistant and chief entertainment coordinator would follow up, “of what time the two of them might be heading back to McLean?”
If a precise, or precise-ish, reply were forthcoming — “6:30” — “about 7” — red alert! A lavish Rich Ferry production was guaranteed. Hundreds of guests, streets blocked off, beefy security guards in Kevlar from head to toe, helicopters overhead. “You are kindly requested,” the invitations would go read, “for the honor of your company and for your arrival between 6:00 pm and 7:00 pm.” For Rich only had one goal for his soirées: for his guests to witness the ten-car black SUV motorcade of the First Daughter and the First Son-in-Law zipping up to their house just across the street from his as the parking valets collected the key fobs from his guests.
All it took was for one person to recognize Isabella Ratzenberger’s trademark platinum-blonde bun framing her angelic porcelain face or (less likely yet possible) the awkward frame of her serene, stupid-looking husband.
“Did you see? Across the street? Isabella Ratzenberger and Josh Katzen!”
If one of them knew, they all knew. Success!
Official Washington assessed the status of its players by several metrics. One of the most telling was real estate. Why did the Brits care about Gibralter? Geopolitical positioning! Rich Ferry was Secretary of Energy, and that wasn’t nothing, but living across from Isabella and Josh? That was Gibralter and the Suez Canal and the Strait of Hormuz combined!
Before Ratzenberger overturned the political world Josh Katzen had been an object of slight curiosity and much scorn. He’d followed his father into the real estate racket in eastern Pennsylvania but lost most of his family’s ill-gotten holdings to a nosy federal prosecutor with gubernatorial aspirations. At age 28 he purchased a weekly newspaper with a small but influential readership, tacking its editorial page toward the right while otherwise maintaining its journalistic respectability. New York’s powerful elites watched the young man warily, sometimes wondering aloud what he was really up to, what he wanted in the end. Years passed, the paper kept appearing long after most of the big dailies had gone away, and Katzen kept so silent that comedians (when they remembered his existence) drew their audiences’ attention to the fact that he was so down-low no one had any idea what his voice sounded like.
In this way Katzen accrued a modicum of non-disrespect.
Then word went out that he had become engaged to Isabella Ratzenberger. “I’m been at this long enough to know that slime always finds its level,” sneered Lacey Bantam, New York’s most-read and consistently denied tabloid gossip columnist. “Confirming the aphorism that the rotten apple may roll away from its jailbird-dad tree only to wind up wallowing in the reality-television trash, Katzen the Younger is to be betrothed to the insipid scion of a pseudo-billionaire infamous for his womanizing, multiple marriages and a trail of bankrupt business spin-offs. Just when you thought it was safe to withhold your scorn, reality reasserts itself. Sources close to the happy couple confirm that the bride-to-be has agreed to convert to Pentecostalism at Josh’s request.”
One thing that makes America great is the hard-wired forgetfulness of its people, which allows even the most disgraced citizen to reinvent himself without the inconvenience of penance. Less than half a decade after the ridiculed nuptials Ratzenberger was president and Katzen was his right-hand man in charge of solving climate change and anything else Big and Serious and Difficult the president wanted addressed without personally having to dedicate any of his time or energy.
Isabella, whose doe-eyed visage evoked knowing eye rolls a few years previous — whatEVer — was rehabilitated by her father’s surprising seizure of his party’s nomination for the presidency. Winning the general election transformed her into the goddess of exceeded rock-bottom expecations. Formerly derided as gauche and tawdry, Isabella’s fashion line popped up in the display windows of the remaining department stores. Dismissed mere months before as tonedeaf and out-of-touch, her book I Did It and So Can You: a Self-Starter’s Memoir of and Guide to Making Your Success All By Yourself dominated the bestsellers lists.
“Deny it if you must,” a bowled-over feature writer for the Times Magazine informed his readers, “but Isabella Ratzenberger is not at all what you’d expect. She is incredibly poised, articulate and undeniably impressive…she is her father’s finest achievement. Anyone who bears responsibility for fathering this young woman must have done something right.”
A reporter allowed to roam the White House for months authored a tell-all insta-memoir of his impressions that drove members of the new administration insane. One of the juiciest revelations concerned Washington’s starriest new couple. “[Isabella] Ratzenberger and her husband have reached an agreement,” the author of Fighting Furious: Inside the Ratzenberger Revolution, that “if the opportunity were to arise, she would be the one to run for president.”
Rich gazed at the House Across the Street as he dialed the International Gas and Oil Institute. The Katzens weren’t home. But they would be.
“I am sorry,” Rich informed his friend, the IGOI CEO who had invited him to address that year’s conference on developments in the North American energy sector, “but I feel just awful. It kills me. My speech is ready and so was I but I honestly don’t think I could make it halfway there without making a mess in my car.” The IGOI guy chuckled.
Whether or not he believed him, the energy lobbyist had no choice but to accept Rich’s cancellation and graciously wish him a speedy recovery. He’d call in a favor in order to secure a suitable substitute, though the gathering would lose some of its luster with the absence of its host nation’s top government official in charge of energy policy.
Rich Ferry was telling the truth for once. He really did feel awful.
It began the night before. While reading the trade journal Gas and Oil he had had trouble concentrating. The words and charts seemed to blur together. It wasn’t his vision. He could see perfectly. He couldn’t focus.
After ending the call Rich spent the rest of the day drifting in and out of sleep. His kitchen maid Brenda opened the door but he sent her away. God no, no food. I’ll never be hungry again, he thought.
The sun fell and faded away.
He stacked the decorative pillows on the adjacent Louis XV-style loveseat, a gaudy object of gilt wood and black and white upholstery that featured intricately carved ornaments consisting of leafy scrolls throughout its frame. He pushed the side sleeping pillows to the floor. He arranged the three down ones to maximize support for his neck, which was prone to stiffness: one left, one right, one on top in the middle, slightly toward the front. He lay down and tugged the duvet. He tucked it under his left shoulder, then his right. Swaddled and secure, he prepared for a sleep that refused to come.
Pain struck his head and his stomach almost exactly at the same time. The headache was truly terrible, searing, one of the worst he had ever experienced, perhaps the worst, like a vice grip on the sides behind his eyes. Whatever was going on with his stomach would have been weirdly interesting if it hadn’t hurt so badly. Had a doctor been there to ask, he would have compared the agony to a butcher knife twisting up his bowels. But he was alone. His wife was — where? oh right, Texas, with her sister — and the household help had been sent home for the evening.
Overcome with a wave of fatigue yet jittery, Rich rolled to the side of the bed and struggled to sit up. There was an unexpected churn; shuddering with severe convulsions he ejected his still recognizable penne putanesca dinner, and then a full pint of blood, across the 1890s wallpaper that had once graced a home in the Shanghai French Concession.
“I just need rest,” Rich said aloud to the desecrated room but then got up in search of something to clean up with since neither he nor the room could stay like that. Panting, heaving, releasing more bloody spittle despite his best efforts, Rich lurched toward the bathroom.
He barely made it inside. Bracing himself against corner walls, he lowered himself onto the toilet, trying to regroup. “What’s happening?” he asked himself. He noticed a light in the living room across the street switch on. “They’re home,” he reveried à propos of nothing. It was his last thought.
(C) 2020 Ted Rall, All Rights Reserved.